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Gov. Newsom’s big California victory: Trumpism and what it means for Illinois politics

Trump and Trumpism can play both ways in Illinois, said Democratic consultant Pete Giangreco. “The best precinct captain in the world right now is Donald Trump. He drives turnout on both sides.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to union workers and volunteers on election day at the IBEW Local 6 union hall on Sept. 14, 2021, in San Francisco, California.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to union workers and volunteers on election day at the IBEW Local 6 union hall on Sept. 14, 2021, in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom strongly rebuffed a recall effort Tuesday, remaining in office with the support of about two-thirds of the voters in an election with political implications spilling over to Illinois — like California, a big blue state.

Democrats are cheering Newsom’s commanding victory.

At the same time — and this can’t be overlooked — the Republican who surfaced at the top of a crowded field, Larry Elder, a conservative talk show host, ran as a full Trumper. The rise of Elder may have backfired and helped Newsom, by motivating Democrats to vote.

Elder’s emergence is a sign of the strength and growth of Trumpism.

As Newsom said in his victory speech, “We may have defeated Trump, but Trumpism is not dead in this country.” Newsom then sort of defined Trumpism: “The Big Lie, the January 6 insurrection, all the voting suppression efforts that are happening all across this country.”

Democrats in Illinois have their differences between moderates and progressives but on the whole they exist in the same boat.

Trumpism is taking hold in Illinois. Illinois Republicans are splintered.

There are the establishment Illinois Republicans who believe in government institutions, no matter where they are on the GOP ideological spectrum. Leading Trump critic Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., one of two Republicans on the Jan. 6 Commission — created by House Democrats — will have a hard time winning a GOP Illinois House primary next June.

Then there are the Illinois Trump Republicans, animated by their loyalty to former President Donald Trump — who are often also anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, election deniers, conspiracy believers and defenders of the mob attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6.

They may see Elder’s surge, such as it was, as inspiration and a rallying point. But it’s hard to see how a hard-line Trumper could win a statewide election against Gov. J.B. Pritzker or Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., both up in 2022.

In statewide elections, Democrats win on the strength of northern Illinois Democrats who live in the heavily populated Chicago and the surrounding counties.

Trump and Trumpism can play both ways in Illinois, said Democratic consultant Pete Giangreco. “The best precinct captain in the world right now is Donald Trump. He drives turnout on both sides,” Giangreco said.

Newsom’s recall was also a referendum of sorts on his COVID policies — masks, vaccines, etc. That’s a good sign for Pritzker, who is already making his pandemic record a centerpiece of his bid for a second term.

Democratic consultant Eric Adelstein said, “I think you’re going see that play out in this gubernatorial primary — you’ll see these guys climbing over each other to be who’s Trumpier. But I’m not sure, ultimately, that works in a general election in Illinois.”

In the 2022 Illinois GOP primary for governor, the biggest Trumper running is state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, followed by others who have embraced Trump to different degrees — or at least not run from him. That’s suburban businessman Gary Rabine and former state Sen. Paul Schrimpf, R-Waterloo. It’s not clear yet where the newcomer to the race, Jesse Sullivan, a businessman from Petersburg, is on the Trump loyalty scale.

Some leaders of the Illinois GOP establishment are rooting for Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., to jump in the governor race. In recent months, perhaps to preserve his political viability, Davis has drifted from the mainstream toward Trump.

And on another front, Giangreco said early indications from California show Newsom won with a strong mail vote, and “it’s very easy to vote by mail in Illinois. …That’s just another structural advantage for Democrats, up and down the ticket.

An Illinois Republican consultant — who did not want to be named to avoid trouble with the Trumpers — told me, “Illinois Republicans are really at a crossroads. They need to make a decision whether they want to run candidates based on a Trump litmus test” or take the big risk of losing suburban voters.

Illinois Republicans got a glimpse of the future through the California recall. While Elder leveraged his Trumpism, in the end, it boomeranged and created a Newsom landslide.

In Illinois, the GOP consultant told me, the same thing could happen. “The test in this upcoming election is going to be for Republicans, whether they’re going to nominate someone that can actually run a statewide race, or if they’re going to do what Republicans in California did — which was take a recall race that — without Larry Elder in it — could have been still uphill, but could have been competitive, and made it a laugher.”